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For Peace Mother, life as normal ended with soldier son's death
San Luis Obispo Tribune
by MARTHA MENDOZA, Associated Press
VACAVILLE, Calif. - Before her son was killed in Iraq, before she began a peace vigil outside President Bush's Texas ranch, before she became an icon of the anti-war movement and the face of grieving mothers, there was a time when Cindy Sheehan's life was, by all appearances, incredibly normal.
She grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles, the daughter of a housewife and an electrician. She married her high school sweetheart, Patrick Sheehan. They had four babies, one almost every other year. They drove their growing clan in a huge, yellow station wagon with a goofy nickname: "The BananaMobile." She volunteered at church, and later, as the children grew, she worked there.
Normal life ended for Cindy Sheehan in April 2004, when her oldest son Casey, 24, was killed in Iraq.
First, she says, "I was a Mom in deep shock and deep grief."
Then came what she considered to be a disturbingly placid meeting with President Bush two months after Casey's death. While she found him to be a "man of faith," she also said later that he seemed "totally disconnected from humanity and reality." And when she later heard him speak of soldiers' deaths as "noble," Sheehan felt she had to do something.
"The shock has worn off and deep anger has set in," she said.
Sheehan co-founded an anti-war organization and began talking, protesting, even speaking at a Congressional hearing. She got a Web site, a public relations assistant (paid for by an anti-war group), an entourage of peace activists and a speaking tour.
While her message was strong - and widely disseminated - she didn't become world famous until last week, when, after speaking at the annual Veterans' For Peace national conference in Dallas, she decided to take a bus to Crawford and have a word with her president.
For the record, here's what she said she wants to tell him: "I would say, 'What is the noble cause my son died for?' And I would say if the cause is so noble has he encouraged his daughters to enlist? And I would be asking him to quit using Casey's sacrifice to justify continued killing, and to use Casey's sacrifice to promote peace."
There's something about Sheehan's peaceful vigil, her unstoppable anguish, her soft blue eyes and gentle way of speaking, that has captured attention for an anti-war movement that until now hasn't had much of a leader.
In the past week she has appeared on every major television and radio network and newspapers around the world.
But her advocacy is now at a pivotal point, as her raw grief and plainspoken protest is broadcast live, her sincerity and genuineness is being questioned.
As she wept and prayed this week at a cross bearing her son's name in a symbolic cemetery for soldiers along the road to Bush's ranch, photographers clustered nearby, elbowing each other for the best shot.
Critics have started calling her a pawn of the left-wing. Some conservative organizations, talk show hosts and even some of her own extended family accuse her of shifting her position and say she is lowering troop morale.
"To be perfectly honest, I think it is disgraceful," said bookkeeper Diana Kraft of Vacaville, whose son is in the Navy. "I don't know the loss she's feeling to lose a son because, thank goodness, I haven't had that, but we're in this war and we have to support the troops."
Other friends, neighbors and churchmembers argue that she is a hero, and say they're proud of what she's doing.
Meanwhile, dozens of people have joined her and others have sent flowers and food. One activist called her "the Rosa Parks of the anti-war movement." Other "Camp Casey" protests and vigils are springing up around the country, with handmade signs calling on Bush to "Talk To Cindy." Activists in San Francisco were rallying Friday on her behalf; others planned to gather Monday in New York's Union Square.
Sheehan knows she's being heard.
Bush himself acknowledged her on Thursday, telling White House reporters at his ranch that "she has every right in the world to say what she believes. This is America. She has a right to her position."
But Bush said Sheehan is wrong on Iraq: "I thought long and hard about her position. I've heard her position from others, which is: Get out of Iraq now. And it would be a mistake for the security of this country and the ability to lay the foundations for peace in the long run if we were to do so."
Sheehan, a lifelong Democrat, said that until her son died, she'd never spoken out about her views.
She said she was "too young" during the Vietnam War - "I only saw it on the news and I thought it was horrible," she said. She said she didn't agree with the first Gulf War, but only talked about it with friends and classmates.
As a child, Sheehan was opinionated, but not outspoken, says her sister Dede Miller. Together they and their brother Scott enjoyed "a very simple, very normal" life in the then-quiet community of Bellflower, Calif., about 20 miles south of Los Angeles. Sheehan was a sharp student, enrolled in programs for gifted students. She married her first serious boyfriend, Patrick, whom she met when she was 17.
They soon began having children, first Casey and then Carly, Andy and Jane. Sheehan devoted herself to raising them.
"She was an earth mother, a very devoted Mom," said Miller. "She did all of the studying, she read all the books about raising kids, she breast-fed, the whole nine yards."
After Jane, her youngest, started school, Sheehan began taking classes at UC Los Angeles, studying math and history. She never graduated, and in 1993, the family moved to Vacaville, a family-friendly town midway between San Francisco and Sacramento, where Patrick worked as a sales representative.
After Casey died, the Sheehans bought a house on a tree-lined street less than a block from St. Mary's Church, where Sheehan worked for eight years, first as a volunteer and later as a popular youth minister for the diocese. But the stress of his death and their grief prompted she and her husband to separate, she said.
She also gave up her new job - she had been training as a case manager with Napa County's Health and Human Services department - and said she has been living off of her son's "blood money," funds provided by the military after his death. She is also supported by donations from supporters.
In Vacaville this week, her friend Stefanie Fereday-Mannel said Sheehan still has many supporters in their community: "She has a heart and it's been totally ripped and I feel she has a say," she said.
"She opened her home to tons of kids," she added. "It was like, when they said, 'We are going over to Cindy's for pizza tonight,' you knew that was OK to do."
Dede Miller planned to join her younger sister this weekend in Texas, where Sheehan has vowed to remain on the hot, dusty shoulder of Prairie Chapel Road through Bush's August vacation, unless he decides to meet with her personally.
"My whole family would rather I was home more than gone," she said. "Some people have tried to discourage me from doing what I'm doing but I can't be discouraged, I can't be stopped because I know what I'm doing is so important. It's a matter of life or death."
Associated Press Writers Lisa Leff in San Francisco and Angela K. Brown in Crawford, Texas contributed to this story.